How to Avoid the Antibiotics Apocalypse

Careless use of antibiotics can further increase the incidence of resistance. Photo credit: Iqbal Osman

By Anna Dutton

Since Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928, antibiotic usage has significantlyincreased. Despite antibiotic treatments remaining largely effective, the continuing administration of the drug has meant some forms of bacteria have become resistant. This could spell disaster for future generations; with new diseases always popping up, it is only a matter of time before one becomes invincible to antibiotics.

On average 700,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections and the number is likely to rise. With this phenomena becoming so widespread, various solutions have been proposed.

One idea is to reduce the number of pills administered to patients. In some practices, it is common for patients who don’t need the drug to receive antibiotics. The pathogen inside that patient can then become resistant to antibiotics, and given the right conditions could reproduce and multiply.

This solution has been trialled in America by Jason Doctor, a psychologist at the University of Southern California. By persuading more than 200 doctors to sign up, posters were distributed and put up in health clinics, encouraging patients to reconsider their antibiotic requirement. This approach was used alongside alerts on the computers of doctors and ranking systems illustrating the amount of pills a doctor was administrating compared to their peers. The results were positive; the number of pills administered significantly decreased.

The promising results of the study will result in similar systems being implemented in other US states to try and reduce consumption. However, it is unlikely that a notable reduction in the consumption of antibiotics will take place as poultry and cattle are large consumers of antibiotics.

After discovering that antibiotics induced quicker animal growth, the drug was fed to animals to reduce growth periods. However, later studies showed that antibiotics can be passed on to humans; this did not deter many famers. Thus, despite Doctors’ efforts, antibiotic-resistant bacteria still flourish undetected in the food chain.

However, in the Dutch meat industry (the Netherlands having more animals per square meter than other countries), there has been some success. After numerous scares in the industry, European governments decided that from 2009 farmers were to reduce antibiotic administration by 20% in two years and 50% in five years. Dutch farmers were among the most surprising to oblige and the effects meant many stopped using antibiotics with the overall amount falling by 60% over two years.

In addition to these measures, scientists are considering the bacteria themselves to find answers. Kim Hardie, a Microbiologist at the University of Nottingham, believes if we can stop bacteria communicating to one another, they cannot reproduce. Laboratory results have been successful, so this may be a viable option for the future. In addition, exploration of Panama has found antibiotic algae on the toes of sloths and there is even a possibility of using the saliva of a Komodo Dragons as a form of antibiotics.

In summary, despite many positive resolutions to solving this crisis, fatalities are still inevitable with countries like China and Russia increasing their usage. Thus, if there is to be a notable decrease, it will require a global effort, not just a national or regional one.

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